Commentary Magazine


A Better World, by William L. O'Neill

Progressives’ Progress

A Better World.
by William L. O’Neill.
Simon & Schuster. 447 pp. $17.95.

This is a welcome book—a careful, systematic study of the struggle between those American intellectuals who supported or apologized for Stalinism and their adversaries, from the period of the New Deal on. William L. O’Neill, the author of an earlier biography of Max Eastman, has produced a formidable work; it stands against an entire literature in which American Communists and their allies have been depicted as wholly innocent victims of a sinister right-wing inquisition abetted by cowardly liberals. The truth, O’Neill convincingly shows, is a much more complicated and interesting affair.

In delineating the map of the Stalinist Left, O’Neill distinguishes scrupulously among actual Communists, fellow-travelers, and the vast body of “progressives” (just as, on the other side, he distinguishes between liberal and right-wing anti-Communists). His primary focus is on fellow-travelers and progressives, the latter grouped in the main around two weekly magazines, the Nation and the New Republic. Communist-party members and party journals do not interest him particularly, and for good reason: their point of view on major political questions was identical to that of Moscow, and hence a rather less complex matter than some today seem inclined to acknowledge.

Fellow-travelers, reliable adherents of the party line, were represented by newspapers such as the Compass (a successor to PM) and the National Guardian, which professed an “independent radical” perspective, and by prominent individuals like Corliss Lamont (financial “angel” of the Guardian, the National Council of Soviet-American Friendship, and similar causes), the journalist Anna Louise Strong, and the playwright Lillian Hellman. In the 1930’s and 40’s, fellow-travelers denied the crimes of Stalin, apologized for the Nazi-Soviet pact, justified Russia’s invasion of Finland, and, in general, refrained from public criticism of Moscow.

In some cases, the distinction between fellow-travelers and actual Communists turned solely on the technical issue of party membership. Paul Robeson, for example, is properly identified as a fellow-traveler, insofar as there is no concrete evidence of his ever having formally joined the CP. In other instances, fellow-travelers appear to have been willing to acknowledge privately—although never publicly—that the Soviets made “mistakes.” Anna Louise Strong, troubled by Stalin’s show trials and by the Great Purge, described her inner conflict in a letter to a political compatriot:

The people I really cared for, on whose side I felt myself to be fighting—they winced so if a single weakness in the USSR were noticed. . . . So I let my audiences pressure me into giving what I knew was a partial picture. I told no lies, but I didn’t tell all the truth. . . . And I still think this may be the correct procedure.

This suggests a crucial point for O’Neill’s analysis. Anna Louise Strong and other pro-Soviet figures practiced rank intellectual dishonesty, suppressing information—facts they knew to be accurate—about the evils of Soviet Russia. The rationalization that they merely failed to tell “all the truth” scarcely mitigates the seriousness of the offense. Many fellow-travelers, as it happens, were outright liars. Indeed some, still unrepentant, have acknowledged as much. Alexander Werth, who served as Moscow correspondent for the Nation (and also some mainstream journals), confessed in 1967 to having deliberately given out false figures about the number of Soviet labor-camp inmates in the 1940’s. In a letter to the New Statesman Werth defended his action:

[T]here was a very good reason for this. In 1948, the cold war was at its height, and there were no end of people in Britain, and especially in the U.S., who were advocating a preventive war against Russia; and the “slave labor” (the more the better) was their pet argument. It was the hawks of those days who spoke of 3-30 million “slave laborers” whom it was the Free World’s sacred duty to liberate.

This phenomenon of systematic dishonesty, as O’Neill observes, points to an important difference between pro-Soviet intellectuals of all shades and their liberal anti-Communist critics. The former were guilty of knowingly disseminating falsehoods or, in a particularly common practice among progressives and fellow-travelers, suppressing key information. Liberal anti-Communists, whatever other flaws may be attributed to them, simply did not engage in such practices. Thus, contrary to what has sometimes been said of them, the liberal anti-Communists did not stand in the same relation to Senator Joseph McCarthy as the fellow-travelers did to Soviet Communism.

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The two years of the Nazi-Soviet pact, up until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, proved a painful period for both fellow-travelers and progressives—a “nightmare season,” in the words of the Nation’s Carey McWilliams. Then the “nightmare” gave way to bliss as the two powers became antagonists and the United States entered the war as an ally of the Soviet Union. During World War II and indeed through the Henry Wallace campaign to about 1950, it became difficult to find a distinction between fellow-travelers and progressives. Some fellow-travelers did, from time to time, criticize either Russia or, more often, the American CP. Many progressives, for their part, belonged to Communist fronts. But after the war, when it became inescapably clear that Wallace’s Progressive party was controlled by the CP—even Lillian Hellman, while busy denying this publicly, was, by her own testimony, privately (and fruitlessly) begging the Communist leaders to lie low—most progressives reassessed their relation to CP causes and to the party line. Their reassessment was also stimulated by the start of the Korean war, a clear act of Communist aggression.

Still, even before these developments there were significant differences between fellow-travelers and the major progressive institutions. At the height of their enthusiasm for World War II, the “People’s War,” the Nation and the New Republic were still not to be confused with the New Masses. It was precisely the difference between them which led to the special, calisthenic form in which the editors of the Nation and the New Republic apologized for those Soviet offenses they could not realistically ignore. Thus, when news reached the West that Henryk Erlich and Victor Alter, the two leaders of the Jewish labor Bund in Poland, had been executed as spies by Moscow (after fleeing to Soviet-controlled territory to escape the Nazis), the New Republic‘s editorial response was that yes, Erlich and Alter were innocent, and the Soviets ought not to have killed them, but the Allies did not have clean hands, either. What about British outrages in India? What about Sacco and Vanzetti? This ploy, of countering every Soviet misdeed with a supposedly equally heinous Western one, was a staple of progressive polemics.

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O’Neill treats the McCarthy era in a particularly thoughtful manner. He examines the harsh public record—the hearings, the loyalty oaths, the show-business blacklist, and all the rest—but does not scant the prior political activities of most of the victims. Of the Hollywood Ten, O’Neill writes:

It was Stalinism that inspired HUAC to subpoena the Ten and it was as Stalinists that they refused to testify. It was because of Stalinism that the blacklist was created. The human and constitutional costs of blacklisting were far greater than what they were directed against. Stalinism was an evil all the same, and the occasion for what followed.

This is especially important to appreciate in view of efforts today to picture the events of that period as a morality play. As O’Neill notes:

That they were penalized unfairly does not absolve show-business Stalinists of political sin. Nor does the failure of their politics make them less bad. Media Stalinists, like other party members, had put the interests of Russia ahead of their own country’s, and had defended or rationalized policies that caused the death of millions and the loss of liberty to many more. And those who cooperated with them overlooked this or held that it didn’t matter. The conventional judgment on blacklisting is that it ought to be remembered so as to prevent such a thing from happening again. But the causes of blacklisting should not be forgotten either, and for the same reason.

According to a corrupt rendering of history which has enjoyed considerable success since the late 60’s, American Stalinism was an insignificant phenomenon, easily excusable in light of the good intentions of its adherents, whereas anti-Communism, particularly of the liberal variety, strengthened McCarthy and the forces of reaction, and helped lead America into Vietnam. This bit of pernicious nonsense has enjoyed the status of received wisdom, despite the fact that it is a thoroughly warped interpretation of the events in question. The refusal of both fellow-travelers and many progressives (the anti-anti-Communists) to recognize domestic Stalinism as the primary cause—the condition sine qua non—of the McCarthy reaction is, in O’Neill’s words, “. . . rather like a homeowner refusing to assign any responsibility to the fire in his house for the damage done by the firemen.”

Aside from disregarding the fire, those who advance this particular interpretation also distort the arguments of the leading liberal anti-Communists. Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, Diana Trilling, Louis Berg, and others, far from being defenders or allies of McCarthy, declared themselves his adversaries. They did not rationalize his conduct, but attacked liberals and progressives for shortcomings which in their view benefited his demagogic assault on American institutions. Indeed Hook, Kristol, and others, by refusing to grant the Right a monopoly on the issue of anti-Communism, were the true enemies of McCarthyism, while those (like the editors of the Nation) who denied that American Stalinism was a problem merely afforded McCarthyism free rein. As for those who kept the party line or who devoted their political energies to the cause of the Soviet Union, and then attempted to pose before HUAC as defenders of American principles, they were not foes of McCarthy at all. To the contrary, they were the props on which he built his insidious career.

By clarifying this often muddied history and setting it into measured analytical perspective, William O’Neill’s book makes an important contribution both to scholarship and to the cause of political honesty.

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